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Sweet Persuasions of the Dark

1.

In his earliest childhood recollection, young Bruno Schulz sits on the floor ringed by an admiring household while he scrawls one “drawing” after another over the pages of old newspapers. In his creative transports, the child still inhabits “the age of genius,” still has unselfconscious access to the realm of myth. Or so it seemed to the man whom the child became; all of that man’s strivings would be to reacquire his early powers, to “mature into childhood.”

Schulz’s strivings would issue in two bodies of work: etchings and drawings which would be of no great interest today had Schulz not become famous by other means; and two short books, collections of stories and sketches about the inner life of a boy in provincial Galicia, that propelled him to the forefront of Polish letters in the interwar years. Rich in fantasy, sensuous in their apprehension of the living world, elegant in style, witty, underpinned by a mystical but coherent idealistic aesthetic, Cinnamon Shops and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass were unique and startling productions, seeming to come out of nowhere.

Schulz had been born in 1892, the third child of Jewish parents from the merchant class, and named for the Christian saint Bruno on whose name-day his birthday fell. The province of his birth was at the time a crownland of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His home town, Drohobycz, was something of an industrial center with oil wells nearby. After World War I Drohobycz again became part of a resurrected Poland.

There was a Jewish school in Drohobycz, but Schulz was sent to the Polish gymnasium, where he excelled in art. His languages were Polish and German; he did not speak the Yiddish of the streets. Dissuaded by his family from becoming an artist, he registered to study architecture at the polytechnic in Lwów, but had to break off his studies when war was declared in 1914. Because of a heart defect he was not called up. Returning to Drohobycz, he set about a program of intensive self-education, reading and practicing his draftsmanship. He put together a portfolio of graphics on erotic themes entitled The Book of I dolatry and tried to sell copies, with some diffidence and not much success.

Unable to make a living as an artist, saddled, after his father’s death, with a houseful of ailing relatives to support, he took a job as an art teacher at a local school, a position he held until 1941. Though respected by his students, he found school life stultifying and wrote letter after letter imploring the authorities for time off to pursue his creative work, letters to which, to their credit, they did not always turn a deaf ear.

Despite his isolation in the provinces, Schulz was able to exhibit his artworks in various cities in Poland and to enter into correspondence with kindred spirits. Into his letters—of which only a small proportion have survived—he poured much of his creative energy. Jerzy Ficowski, Schulz’s biographer, calls him the last great exponent of epistolary art in Poland. All evidence indicates that the pieces that make up his first book, Cinnamon Shops (1934), began their life in letters to the poet Debora Vogel.

Cinnamon Shops was received with enthusiasm by the Polish intelligentsia. On visits to Warsaw Schulz was welcomed into artistic salons and invited to write for literary reviews; at his school he was awarded the title “Professor.” He became engaged to Józefina Szelinå«ska, a Jewish convert to Catholicism, and, though not himself converting, withdrew formally from the Drohobycz Jewish Religious Community. Of his fiancée he wrote: “[She] constitutes my participation in life; through her I am a person, and not just a lemur and kobold…. She is the closest person to me on earth.” Nevertheless, after two years the engagement fell through.

The first translation into Polish of Franz Kafka’s The Trial appeared in 1936 under Schulz’s name, but the actual work of translation had been done by Szelinå«ska.

In 1937 Schulz published a second book, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. The book was put together from early pieces, some of them still tentative and amateurish. Schulz tended to deprecate it, though in fact a number of the stories are quite up to the standard of Cinnamon Shops.

Burdened by teaching and by familial responsibilities, anxious about political developments in Europe, Schulz was by this time descending into a depression in which he found it impossible to write. Receipt of the Golden Laurel of the Polish Academy of Literature did not raise his spirits; nor did a three-week visit to Paris, his only substantial venture outside his native land. He set off for what he would in retrospect call “the most exclusive, self-sufficient, standoffish city in the world” in the dubious hope of arranging an exhibition of his artworks, but made few contacts and came away empty-handed.

In 1939, as a consequence of the Nazi–Soviet partition of Poland, Drohobycz was absorbed into Soviet Ukraine. Under the Soviets there were no opportunities for Schulz as a writer (“We don’t need Prousts,” he was told). He was, however, commissioned to do propaganda paintings. He continued to teach until, in 1941, the Ukraine was invaded by the Germans and all schools were closed. Executions of Jews began at once, and in 1942 mass deportations.

For a while Schulz managed to escape the worst. He had the luck to be adopted by a Gestapo officer with pretensions to art, thereby acquiring the status of “necessary Jew” and the precious armband that protected him during roundups. For decorating the walls of his patron’s residence and the officers’ casino he was paid with food rations. Meanwhile he bundled his artworks and manuscripts in packages and deposited them among non-Jewish friends. Well-wishers in Warsaw smuggled money and false papers to him, but before he could summon up the resolve to flee Drohobycz he was dead, singled out and shot in the street during a day of anarchy launched by the Gestapo.

By 1943 there were no Jews left in Drohobycz.

In the late 1980s, as the Soviet Union was breaking up, news reached the Polish scholar Jerzy Ficowski that an unnamed person with access to KGB archives had come into the possession of one of Schulz’s packages, and was prepared to dispose of it for a price. Though the lead ran dry, it provided the basis for Ficowski’s enduring hope that Schulz’s lost writings may yet be recovered. These writings include an unfinished novel, Messiah, as well as notes that Schulz was taking at the time of his death, records of conversations with Jews who had seen the working of the execution squads and transports at first hand, intended to form the basis of a book about the persecutions.*

In Poland Jerzy Ficowski, born in 1924, is known as a poet and scholar of Gypsy life. His main reputation rests, however, on his work on Bruno Schulz. Since the 1940s Ficowski has indefatigably, against all obstacles, bureaucratic and material, scoured Poland, the Ukraine, and the wider world for what is left of Schulz. His translator, Theodosia Robertson, calls him an archaeologist, the leading archaeologist of Schulz’s artistic remains. Regions of the Great Heresy is Robertson’s translation of the third, revised edition (1992) of Ficowski’s biography, to which he has added two chapters—one on the lost novel Messiah, one on the fate of the murals that Schulz painted in Drohobycz in his last year—as well as a detailed chronology and a selection of Schulz’s surviving letters.

Within her translation of Regions of the Great Heresy, Theodosia Robertson has elected to retranslate all passages quoted from Schulz. She does so because, along with other scholars of Polish literature in the United States, she has reservations about the existing English translations. These appeared from the hand of Celina Wieniewska in 1963: it is through them, under the collective title The Street of Crocodiles, that Schulz is known in the English-speaking world. Wieniewska’s translations are open to criticism on a number of grounds. First, they are based on faulty texts: a dependable, scholarly edition of Schulz’s writings appeared in Poland only in 1989. Second, there are occasions when Wieniewska silently emends Schulz. In the sketch “A Second Autumn,” for example, Schulz fancifully names Bolechow as the home of Robinson Crusoe. Bolechow is a town near Drohobycz; whatever Schulz’s reasons for not pointing to his own town, it behooves his translator to respect them. Wieniewska changes “Bolechow” to “Drohobycz.” Third and most seriously, there are numerous instances where Wieniewska cuts Schulz’s prose to make it less florid, or universalizes specifically Jewish allusions.

In Wieniewska’s favor it must be said that her translations read very well. Her prose has a rare richness, grace, and unity of style. Whoever takes on the task of retranslating Schulz will find it hard to escape from under her shadow.

As a guide to Cinnamon Shops, we can do no better than go to the synopsis that Schulz himself wrote when he was trying to interest an Italian publisher in the book. (His plans came to nothing, as did plans for French and German translations.) Cinnamon Shops, he says, is the story of a family told in the mode not of biography or psychology but of myth. The book can thus be called pagan in conception: as with the ancients, the historical time of the clan merges back into the mythological time of the forebears. But in his case the myths are not communal in nature. They emerge from the mists of early childhood, from the hopes and fears, fantasies and forebodings—what he elsewhere calls “mutterings of mythological delirium”—that form the seedbed of mythic thinking.

At the center of the family in question is Jacob, by trade a merchant, but preoccupied with the redemption of the world, a mission he pursues through the means of experiments in mesmerism, galvanism, psychoanalysis, and other more occult arts from what he calls the Regions of the Great Heresy. Jacob is surrounded by lumpish folk, led by his archenemy, the housemaid Adela, who have no grasp of his metaphysical strivings.

In his attic Jacob rears, from eggs he imports from different parts of the world, squadrons of messenger birds—condors, eagles, peacocks, pheasants, pelicans—whose physical being he sometimes seems on the brink of sharing. But Adela, with her broom, scatters his birds to the four winds. Defeated, embittered, Jacob begins to shrink and dry up, metamorphosing at last into a cockroach. Now and again he resumes his original form to give his son lectures on such subjects as puppets, tailors’ dummies, and the power of the heresiarch to bring trash to life.

This summary was not the end of Schulz’s efforts to outline what he was up to in Cinnamon Shops. For the eyes of a friend, the writer and painter Stanisl/aw Witkiewicz, Schulz extended his account, producing a piece of introspective analysis of remarkable power and acuity amounting to a poetic credo.

  1. *

    A book of the kind that Schulz was planning has now been written by Henryk Grynberg: Penguin has recently issued a translation under the title Drohobycz, Drohobycz and Other Stories. Schulz himself figures as a minor character in the first of Grynberg’s stories.

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